Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, usually sparing in words of praise for Israel in general and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in particular, commended the premier for moving forward on the diplomatic process after Netanyahu met Tuesday with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo.
Aboul Gheit, speaking to reporters following Netanyahu's third visit to Egypt since taking office, said the prime minister had appeared serious about trying to resume negotiations with the Palestinians.
"I can't talk about details, but the prime minister was discussing positions that surpass, in our estimate, what we've heard from them in a long time," Aboul Gheit told reporters. "I can't say that he has come with changed positions, but he is moving forward."
Aboul Gheit's words come amid intensive efforts by the United States to get key Arab countries, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to support a Palestinian return to the negotiating table. His tone suggested that Cairo is moving in that direction.
Aboul Gheit said Netanyahu gave his hosts the impression that he genuinely wanted to get diplomacy moving again, and that "everything is on the table." At the same time, he said settlement construction must be halted for negotiations to succeed.
Aboul Gheit also said Egypt had asked Israel to ease restrictions on Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and Israel promised to take measures that would increase freedom of movement.
In addition to a one-on-one meeting with Mubarak, Netanyahu met with Egyptian Intelligence chief Omar Suleiman and Aboul Gheit.
Netanyahu was accompanied on this visit by his chief negotiator on the Palestinian issue, Yitzhak Molcho, an indication that looking for ways to get the Palestinians back to the negotiating table was high on his agenda. Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, National Security Council head Uzi Arad, adviser Ron Dermer, military attachÃ© Meir Kalifi and spokesman Nir Hefetz also joined Netanyahu.
A few hours after returning, Netanyahu told a Likud central committee meeting that "the time has come to restart the diplomatic process, the time has come to renew the peace process, and Israel has proven that it is willing."
Netanyahu said he was "very encouraged by the commitment of President Mubarak to promote the peace process between us and the Palestinians," and that he expected and hoped "to see such a readiness from the Palestinian Authority."
The Prime Minister's Office, which characterized the atmosphere of the talks as "friendly," said the two leaders had also discussed kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit. Aboul Gheit said Egypt understood Hamas's reservations to the proposed prisoner deal, saying Egypt did not agree with Israel's demand to deport some prisoners and refuse to release others.
Meanwhile, Nimrod Barkan, the head of the Foreign Ministry's Center for Policy Research, the ministry's "intelligence" arm, said Tuesday that the current period of calm in the West Bank would not last forever. Speaking to Israeli ambassadors taking part in a conference in Jerusalem, he said Hamas was planning a "war of attrition" with Israel, and that when the opportunity presented itself, it would attack the center of the country with long-range missiles.
Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilna'i, speaking at the same conference, praised the Egyptians for constructing an underground wall to block the smuggling tunnels from the Sinai into Gaza. The tunnels were meant not only for smuggling arms and goods, but to facilitate the kidnapping of IDF soldiers along the southern border, he said.
Intelligence Affairs Minister Dan Meridor, who also spoke at the event, said time was not on Israel's side, and that it needed to take action to change the diplomatic status quo. He reiterated his position that Israel should establish a committee of inquiry into operation Cast Lead - not a judicial review committee that would evaluate the IDF's own investigations, but a full-blown committee of inquiry.
Meridor said if Iran gained nuclear capability, it would only be a matter of time before countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt did the same, something that would fundamentally change the rules of the game in the world and lead to the dissolution of the nuclear nonproliferation regime.
Mossad director Meir Dagan was scheduled to appear before the ambassadors on Tuesday but canceled his appearance, apparently out of concern that his words would be leaked to the press. Foreign Ministry officials said Dagan's decision to cancel was made before Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) head Yuval Diskin's words to the group on Monday found their way into the media.
Gil Hoffman and AP contributed to this report.